For many freshmen, watching their parents drive away on the first day of college is a moment of unabashed excitement over the newfound sense of freedom. As time wears on, however, long winter months take hold and can bring feelings of homesickness and dread over the first round of daunting finals. These thoughts can—and often do—lead to depression amongst college students, particularly freshmen unaccustomed to dealing with such pressures in a foreign environment. "One of the hardest things for me when I got to college was not having my friends there," says Caitlin Getchell, a 2007 graduate of John Brown University who dealt with symptoms of depression when she started school. "I didn't like attending events alone and would often end up hanging out by myself in my room. Eventually my sleep schedule got completely messed up, I gained weight, and I started skipping classes."
Roughly half of college students will have some degree of psychiatric disorder—mainly depression—at some point during their time in school, according to a 2008 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Even more startling, 6.2 percent of college students surveyed in 2009 considered suicide and 1.3 percent attempted it, according to an American College Health Association study released this spring.
[Learn 5 ways to stay focused and happy.]
According to Sara Hoover, director of counseling and health services at Birmingham-Southern College, symptoms of depression include sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of interest in social activities, withdrawal from activities that a student previously enjoyed, increased crying, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and increased alcohol or drug use.
If you're feeling any of these symptoms on campus, use these 5 tips to keep them at bay:
1. Exercise: Physical activity releases endorphins—neurotransmitters that produce an overall positive feeling within the body, which fight depression naturally according to psychiatrist and consultant Mark Goulston. Mental health experts claim that exercise is a remedy for those feeling mild or moderate depression. For those severely depressed, simply being active may not be the answer.
[Exercise is good, but only in moderation.]
2. Don't be a hermit: While maintaining good grades freshman year might take extra effort as you adjust to the expanded college workload, don't lock yourself away and study endlessly, experts say. "Colleges are not all about studying; they are also about networking and balancing life, extracurricular activities, and leisure," says college and career consultant Claudine Vainrub. And if you feel you have no choice but to study around the clock, don't do it alone. "Studying should be a high priority for freshmen, so find a study group to help hold you accountable and boost your mood," says psychologist Susan Fletcher.
3. Use school counseling services: Campuses don't employ health mental experts simply to toss thousands of dollars down the drain. Their job is to help students, so experts recommend you use them. Most students are hesitant, however, to take a trip to their college's counseling center, fearing ridicule from peers. To help curb that, some schools like Texas Christian University, are screening for mental health problems when students get sick and visit the campus health clinic. "Students are often reluctant to come here to the counseling center with problems. Some perceive a stigma in that," says Linda Wolszon, director of counseling, testing, and mental health at TCU. "But students will go to the Health Center when they are sick."
4. Take advantage of technology: Staying in touch with family members and friends from childhood and high school has become easier than ever with the advent of Facebook and video chat services like Skype. While mental health experts maintain that it's important to make friends in your new environment and be involved in the college community, it's equally crucial not to let bonds dissolve with the people you knew before college. They, after all, know you better than people you first met two months ago. "They may be going through something similar and since you know each other better than you do your new friends, you can talk about what's bothering you without fear of scaring off someone you don't know that well," says Erin Baebler, a college transition coach and admissions consultant.
[Learn why teens are prone to relapses in depression.]
5. Go to sleep: Michael J. Daine, director of CORE Psychological Services and a psychologist with 16 years experience directing college counseling programs, claims that maintaining a fairly regular sleep pattern can ward off depression. In college, many students' sleep patterns are irregular thanks to late-night studying and partying, which is detrimental to their mental health. "Not only is maintaining a regular and sufficient sleep pattern important for avoiding depression, but recent learning research strongly suggests that sleep is key to learning and memory formation—the very reason why students are in school in the first place," he says.
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